Thanks, Sebastian Thrun, for Chilling Me Out about Artificial Intelligence

27224616072_013f4b68d6_bTo some of us, artificial intelligence (AI) is inherently scary.

Bill Gates and Steve Wozniak have spoken openly about their AI concerns. Elon Musk is so badly unnerved by AI he plunked down $10 million for research on how to keep machine intelligence under control. Even Stephen Hawking signed an open letter calling for more AI research not long after telling the BBC, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

If AI gives those guys the willies, how can borderline technophobes like me be expected to cheerfully embrace it? I don’t trust my smartphone enough to do my banking on it, for crying out loud. So I’m not exactly thrilled by the prospect of a future rife with treacherous thinking machines hell-bent on my destruction (or stealing my job, at the very least).

At best, I’ve regarded AI with a healthy suspicion … until a few nights ago. That’s when I came across a Bloomberg interview of Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity. He had just finished speaking about self-driving cars (more scary technology) when the interviewer asked which technology is more ready for the mainstream marketplace—AI or VR.

Thrun’s response caught me by surprise.

He pointed out that the two technologies are quite different. Virtual reality is entertainment-oriented and experiential in nature, he said. “I love VR in the classroom because it gives kids the ability to go somewhere and feel other places as opposed to just flicking through pages in a book.”

Cheers to that, I thought. I’m all for improved education and learning. Now what about the killer robots?

Thrun continued, “AI actually gets to the core of human effectiveness. AI can make our brains superbrains: we can remember everything, we can recognize anybody, we can live every experience we’ve ever missed. Artificial intelligence is going to turn us into better human beings.”

Wait, what?

“For me, AI is a productivity-enhancing thing we do to make humans more efficient,” Thrun explained, “the same way that farming equipment made farmers more efficient.” And with that the interviewer moved onto the topic of content.

Thrun’s sunny take on AI actually didn’t seem unreasonable. In fact, it seemed rational. Exciting even.

I wanted to know more (that farming equipment analogy really got to me) so I spent the following day poking around Thrun’s website reading up on AI. I also did a Google search that turned up fascinating articles from the MIT Technology Review, The Guardian and The Washington Post, all written within the past year and all seemingly acknowledging that some measure of concern over the development of AI is warranted.

Almost everything I read pointed out that ongoing research and debate will only help us maximize whatever rewards AI has to offer while minimizing possible risks. But my reading also made me realize that my suspicion of AI wasn’t based on common sense or logic; it was based on a visceral fear of the unknown and a lot of pop culture nonsense.

My view of AI wasn’t simply clouded. I was blind to its vast promise. Medicine, science, agriculture, manufacturing, education—all of these fields and many more could one day be transformed by AI. Undoubtedly, jobs will be lost to AI but job opportunities are lost to shifts in technology and business practices all the time. AI is just another in a long line of reasons we have for creating new jobs and supporting entrepreneurs.

Clearly, my AI education has only begun. Yet I can already see why so many people are enthralled with the technology and the questions it raises. And I understand why someone would want to make a career of asking, exploring and trying to answer these questions.

I still don’t trust my smartphone. But Rome wasn’t built in a day.


Photo credit: CROMATIX via photopin (license)

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